Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.

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Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

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A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

This review originally published in Litro.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.

October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

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This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.

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tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.

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up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein

When you come right to it, it’s a lot easier to die than it is to use your head.

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This was the very last of my holiday reading books, although I had been back from my holiday for several weeks before I finished it. My friend JonBoy told me to read this years ago—I think we were still in high school when he recommended it—but my first exposure to it was from the movie made in 1997. What most people know is that the film is almost nothing like the book; Paul Verhoeven satirizes the military society that Heinlein describes, where only combat veterans are permitted to vote and the expansion of humanity across the stars is as god-given a right as Manifest Destiny was to the settlers of the American West. The book is still fascinating, though: indeed, its interest lies precisely in its extremely right-wing politics, because the thought processes behind this society are overwhelmingly rational. The problem with them is that they are founded on premises that we now (mostly) believe to be erroneous.

The book follows Johnny Rico, heir to an immense manufacturing fortune, who signs up for military service along with his best friend from high school, Carl. (One of the many things that’s different about the book: Rico barely sees Carl after they join up, and hears later that he’s been killed in action. In the film, the Carl character is played by Neil Patrick Harris and his ability as an empath makes him an increasingly scary rising star in military R&D.) In theory, Rico is being trained as an infantryman, a mud foot, a grunt—almost but not quite cannon fodder—to take part in wars against the Bugs. The Bugs are generally described as being arachnoid, but they’re not:

They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s idea of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.

(Spot the extreme manifestation of Communism! This was written in 1959 and you can kind of tell.)

There are workers, warriors, brains, and queens in Bug society. Workers are harmless and infantrymen don’t waste time or ammo on them. Warriors are the terrifying ones; brains and queens are both hidden underground. The ultimate aim of Rico’s final mission—and the primary focus of the 1997 film—is an attempt to capture either a brain or a queen, in order to learn more about them and possibly trade them for human captives.

What’s interesting about the book is the distinct impression you get that Heinlein really doesn’t care very much about his plot. The final mission, which is by far the most exciting section of the novel (apart from the in medias res first chapter), takes up about sixty pages in a book of 275. The vast majority of the rest of it is comprised of two things: detailed writing about life in the infantry and about the army in general, and expository chunks cunningly disguised as discussions in Rico’s History & Moral Philosophy classes. (The technique is a lot like the bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four that are supposed to be from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book.)

Amazingly, Heinlein makes both sorts of section interesting. Infantry training—any kind of military training—is primarily psychological. Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and was a naval officer, and although he’s writing about the army (and therefore has his characters evincing a tribal scorn for Navy men), the principles of training members of either service are very similar. When he writes about the techniques used to mould men into a fighting unit, you can see the beginnings of the political philosophy that shapes both Starship Troopers and, I think, the worldview of many right-wing voters:

It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.

It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon. Oh, I admit that some of the instructors may have enjoyed it but I don’t know that they did—and I do know (now) that the psych officers tried to weed out any bullies in selecting instructors. They looked for skilled and dedicated craftsmen to follow the art of making things as tough as possible for a recruit; a bully is too stupid, himself too emotionally involved, and too likely to grow tired of his fun and slack off, to be efficient.

The dogma that being cruel to be kind is effective in areas of life other than military training is what underpins things like “bootstraps philosophy”, harsh prison sentences for relatively minor misdemeanors (i.e. New York City’s “broken windows policy”), and welfare reform that disqualifies all but the most abjectly poverty-stricken from government assistance. The idea that the only people qualified to bring such policies to fruition are those clever enough to be disengaged is what spawns public servants like Michael Gove.

Not that a Gove figure has any place in the world of Starship Troopers, where you cannot even stand for office unless you have served a term of duty in the armed forces.

None of the rhetoric actually struck me as new or particularly horrifying for quite a long time, and given what I knew of Heinlein’s political reputation, I was surprised by this. Much of what he says makes a certain amount of sense even—especially—to the historically oppressed (e.g. non-white, non-male, non-cissexual people). Like this:

Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.

That’s one of Starship Troopers‘ most famous quotations, and if you look at it with thoroughly objective eyes, it is not wrong. Violence is our go-to solution, from the individual and immature (punch our brother for his toy truck) to the collective and political (invade a neighboring country for its oil). It’s not nice, and there do exist other ways of arbitrating disputes, but violence in one form or another is a trump card that either side of an argument always knows it can play.

What did make me flinch, and where Heinlein is pretty clearly working with facts we’d now consider outdated, is his defense of corporal and capital punishment. In a History & Moral Philosophy class, the instructor’s entire argument rests on the legitimacy of a simile between a misbehaving human youth and a puppy that needs training.

“These children were often caught; police arrested batches every day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret—in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that any punishment involving pain did a child permanent psychic damage…

“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment—and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution.”

This is a perfectly logical line of reasoning if the premise is sound—if it is in fact true that nothing is a better, more effective deterrent for children and young adults than physical pain and humiliation—but it isn’t true; every behavioral study we have on juvenile psychology supports the opposite conclusion.

I have always found it difficult to handle writing like this, because it feels too much like a free pass for bigotry if I just label it “old-fashioned” and consider it no more. The Chaos, when I mentioned it to him, made a helpful suggestion: that the difference between someone truly being “of their era” and someone being “objectively” racist, sexist, reactionary, etc. is how they react when confronted with contradictory evidence. I suppose you’d have to read interviews with Heinlein at a later stage in his life (he died in 1988) to determine whether his views adapted; I haven’t done that, so I can’t write him off as a libertarian loon just yet. And I would very much like to read Stranger In a Strange Land (themes: culture shock, colonialism, nature vs. nurture) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (AI sentience, anarchy). Heinlein’s talent for explaining the subculture of the infantry, and the promising nature of his plot in Starship Troopers—even if he doesn’t make the most of it—suggests that his less overtly political novels might be real winners.